They were standing in the kitchen by their mugs, waiting to pour hot water onto tea bags, even though as the poster above the sink reminded them, ‘A watched kettle never boils!’ There had been a flurry of stuff to get sent away that morning, and now the pair of them were enjoying the sudden calm of a post-deadline lull.
Behind them, Muriel was discussing the security protocols of online sign-up pages with someone.
‘I’m not a robot!’ she giggled. ‘To prove it, they always ask you to “select all the images that contain a bridge or road sign” or something. But I always find that at least one or two of these pics are a fuzzy area for me. Is that a road sign there in the background in that square, or doesn’t that one count? Which means I could get locked out if I get it wrong – but surely actually proves I’m all too human!!’
‘Phillllllllll…’ began Gav, tearing his attention away from Muriel.
‘Can I ask you an embarrassing question?’
‘Great. But first I’d like to run through a bit of meeting small-talk first. I’ve got a tricky session tomorrow.’
‘Fine, shoot. Do you want me to start?’
‘I’ll go, boss. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’
‘You have to take the stakeholders on the journey with you.’
‘Ultimately, it’s about a fair exchange of value.’
‘There’s no quid without a pro quo.’
‘Let’s not boil the ocean here.’
‘To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail…’
‘Paradigm shift. I fear we could go on like this all day.’
‘No that’s great, boss, thanks.’
‘Please stop calling me that.’
‘Well, technically, you are actually…’
‘I know. But there’s no need to rub it in. Anyway, what was your embarrassing question?’
‘Um. Well, I was reading through your weekly round-up, which of course I religiously triage ever week.’
‘Thanks!’ said Phil. ‘Religious triage is exactly the kind of engagement I’m hoping to provoke with my weekly selection of the latest and greatest in this world we call… well, whatever we’re calling it now.’
‘Right,’ said Gav. ‘And, well, it made me realise… God, this is hard.’
‘Come on man! Better out than in.’
‘It made me realise… that I still don’t really know what b2b actually stands for??’
‘Dear Lord. B2b is business to business. It’s the opposite of business to consumer. A b2b business has customers that are themselves businesses rather than individual people. So a pub or a sweetshop might be b2c, because they primarily serve individuals, while an accountancy firm or an insurance software provider would be essentially b2b, because their customers are mostly other businesses.’
‘And many businesses are both, of course. For example, a wine merchant might serve individuals but also do big wine orders for company dos, for example.’
‘It’s funny how often you use a booze analogy in these little chats of ours, boss.’
‘Just trying to put things into some sort of context you might be able to relate to, Gav.’
‘Isn’t that racist?’
‘OK. But, so what about b2b2c?’
‘Ah. That’s a business whose customers are businesses whose customers are individual consumers. So a b2b business with b2c customers.’
‘Isn’t that everyone eventually?’
‘Not necessarily. If there are intermediaries in the supply chain, such as resellers or distributors, you can also get a b2b2b2c model. And if you factor in influencer marketing and affiliates, you might even have a commercial ecosystem that is ultimately b2b2b2b2c in character. No Sinatra jokes, please.’
Throughout this exchange, a parallel interaction of gestures and facial expressions had been taking place, in which Gav mimed asking Phil if he wanted coffee, Phil mimed back yes, so long as it wasn’t decaff, Gav signalled back that decaff alas was all that was left, Phil intimated that he’d rather have tea in that case, Gav pointed to the sugar, and Phil signed that yes, he would, though he didn’t usually but he was extra sleepy today, what with the kids being up all night.
‘But like, how do you know all this… stuff, Phil?’
‘Oh I don’t really. I’m just googling it as we go.’
They stood, bums leaning provisionally against worktops in the way of office workers who have stopped for a chat they don’t really have time for.
Phil sipped thoughtfully. ‘By the way, Gav, what did you think b2b stood for?’
‘Well, I went back and forth on that one, boss. At one point I thought it might be body-to-body, something to do with the need for greater personalisation that everyone’s always talking about.’
‘Ah. And then?’
‘And then I thought it might mean back to basics.’
‘Back to basics?’
‘Yeah – you know, how Muriel is always saying brands need to get the essentials right, get their strategic ducks in a row before they invest in the bells and whistles, that sort of thing.’
‘But in the end I settled for… Bridges to Babylon.’
Phil spat a mouthful of tea with one sugar across the kitchen floor.
‘Bridges to Babylon???’
‘Isn’t that a Stones album?’
‘On one level, yes. But I reframed it as how our strategic approach provides the foundations (ie the bridge) that will lead the brand to the Nirvana or Holy Grail (aka Babylon) of greater audience engagement.’
‘Yeah, so… Yeah.’
‘So… Gav. How many client workshops, account meetings, sales calls, trade shows and the like have you taken part in where you have spoken and acted with clients out of an assumption that the phrase b2b stands, not for “business to business”, but for “Bridges to Babylon”?’
‘Maybe twenty or thirty?’
Phil spat more tea. ‘And how many times did people twig that you basically had no idea what you were talking about?’
‘Not a one! In fact the whole Babylon thing seemed to make me a more compelling speaker. People must have assumed I was presenting a bold reformulation of the phrase, and they seemed to just lap it up. I’ve got the album cover on a slide if you want to use it.’
Gav looked thoughtful. ‘Phil?’
‘Yes, I guess?’
‘As we’re in confessional mode, is now a good moment to admit my ignorance about “engagement strategy”?’
‘“Engagement?”’ For a moment Phil actually looked pleased. ‘Ah, well that is a tricky one. People do seem to interpret it in lots of different ways. But basically, the way I see it, it’s -’
‘- Oh no, sorry Phil, not engagement. I thought it was generally agreed that no one knew what that meant.’
‘No, it’s “strategy” I’m struggling with.’
Phil sighed and put on his default expression of line-managerial disapproval.
‘I know, I’m hopeless, boss. No need to look at me like that.’
Phil leaned in. ‘The day you find out what strategy means, Gav…’ he whispered warningly.
‘Come and let me know.’
Dan’s first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone. He is also co-author of a comic novel with Unbound, Kitten on a Fatberg. Two of his stories have recently received Pushcart nominations.
He won the 2019 Riptide Journal short story competition, was runner-up in the 2019 Leicester Writes contest, and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018. He has words in places like Pithead Chapel, Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Ginger Collect and Fiction Pool.